The Internet has an established narrative for every big tech company. There are the innovators and the copycats, the rising stars and the dying veterans, the money-makers and the time-wasters.
While there’s probably a little truth in all of these labels, each company's story is built around a common misconception. So here’s my take on what we tend to get wrong about eight of the biggest tech titans.
Misconception: Apple is all about innovation, but they’ve lost their edge since Steve Jobs died.
Reality: Everyone loves to argue about the second half of this statement, but the big misconception lies in the first part. In reality, Apple has always been more about execution and refinement than wild innovation. Even their big hits—the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad—were just better executions of existing technology. With each product, the company has simply refined the design and user interface over many years, with minimal changes to size, shape, and concept. You can debate whether Apple’s execution has dropped off, but the “innovation” angle is a distraction. And even if you do insist on measuring success only by “number of new product categories,” consider that Steve Jobs waited six years after the iPod to launch the iPhone (from 2001 to 2007).
Misconception: Google is churning out successful, innovative products faster than anyone.
Reality: Google certainly announces more ideas than anyone, but only a select few become profitable, ongoing businesses. To this day, Google has one extremely successful business (search), and three or four fairly successful ones (Chrome, Android, YouTube). Just about everything else—from Glass to Google Plus to those self-driving cars—are conceptual frameworks, prototypes, or half-baked businesses that have failed to catch on. (See this list of hundreds of Google products, in various stages of development, along with over 50 that have been discontinued.) Google should be applauded for its innovative spirit, but ultimately credited only for the ideas that actually become hit products.
Misconception: Microsoft is just a big copycat, with zero original ideas.
Reality: Microsoft has developed all sorts of creative products, from a tablet OS way before tablets were popular (10 years before the iPad) to a smart motion sensor (the Kinect) to the Microsoft Surface (by all accounts, an intriguing product with an original design). The problem? Execution. Microsoft routinely botches first attempts and product launches, losing out on early adopters and winning leftover customers only once markets have matured. Windows 8 is the latest example: a fresh, original operating system plagued with bizarre gestures, persistent bugs and a confusing tablet-desktop interface. With big new ideas but mediocre implementation, Microsoft truly is the anti-Apple, just not for the reasons most people believe.
Misconception: Amazon makes billions in profit.
Reality: CEO Jeff Bezos reinvests almost every cent Amazon makes, whether the company is entering a new market, developing the next generation of Kindles or cutting prices to win even more customers. Traditionally, reinvesting all profits is a temporary strategy for a growth company, but for Amazon it’s business as usual. For now, Wall Street seems happy to play along.
Misconception: Facebook is super creepy, and that News Feed manipulation scandal is just the latest example.
Reality: Facebook is a lot like every other big tech company, tweaking algorithms daily to increase engagement, boost user satisfaction and ultimately, grow revenue. In early 2012, they altered the News Feeds of one small group of users (~350k) to feature stories with more negatively-connoted words, and altered a second group of feeds (another 350k) to feature stories with more positively-connoted words. The study lasted one week, and Facebook was able to gather useful information from less than a million people that could ultimately help improve the News Feed experience for over a billion people.
Of course, the Internet howled with offense the second they heard about the study. How dare Facebook control what we see?
The problem with this reaction? The News Feed is already more manipulated than a World Cup match. It’s never been a pure, chronological account of your friends’ posts, like Twitter or Instagram, but rather a whole mess of status updates, photos, relationship changes and miscellaneous commentary that Facebook must interpret and prioritize for its users. Every day when you log into Facebook, you should assume that the company has pulled seven levers and flipped nine switches in an attempt to increase your engagement (and of course, make more money).
So that January 2012 experiment wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary. Okay: It was a little creepy to test people’s emotions without telling them. But for the most part? We shouldn’t be surprised.
Misconception: Yahoo has been a dying brand since Google ate its lunch in the early 2000s.
Reality: Yahoo remains the fourth most popular site on the web, and no one—not even Buzzfeed—does the same combination of click-friendly stories, content breadth and sheer volume of editorial traffic. Recently, Marissa Mayer has rejuvenated the business, attracting new talent and winning over new users. Sure, the company doesn’t control the Internet like Google does, but fourth place online is nothing to sneeze (or tweet sarcastically) at.
Misconception: Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, though that makes vandalism rampant throughout the site.
Reality: Today, Wikipedia isn’t an unruly mob of vandals, but rather a tight-knit group of insiders, whose careful control has turned away well-meaning editors and benign contributors. In 2013, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota published an extensive study on Wikipedia, ultimately suggesting that the site should change its motto from “the encyclopedia that anyone can edit" to “the encyclopedia that anyone who understands the norms, socializes him or herself, dodges the impersonal wall of semi-automated rejection and still wants to voluntarily contribute his or her time and energy can edit.”
It’s hard to blame Wikipedia for overcorrecting in an effort to stamp out vandalism and shameless promotion. It is still, after all, one of the web’s most reliable resources for quick facts and general-topic summaries. But as online information and social networks continue to explode across the web, Wikipedia’s conservative, insiders-only mindset may end up leading to its demise.
Misconception: A lot of celebrities tweet some pretty dumb things, especially given how many followers they have.
Reality: Okay, that one’s true.
This article was written for TIME by Ben Taylor of FindTheBest.